Published Monday, 05 November 2012
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There's a word in Irish which rather neatly sums up the nature of the experience I had in Belturbet. The word is, "meitheal"...

Pronounced 'mayhill', it's literal meaning is "a working party", in other words a body of people sharing a common task.

In the countryside the meitheal was, and in some places still is, a hugely important aspect of the local economy.

At its core is the whole notion of "neighbourliness", whereby people would help each other out at times when lots of hands would be needed to make short work of certain, mostly seasonal, tasks like dealing with the harvest or cutting the turf.

But it could also involve building a barn or even a house, when it would require a range of skills and a big commitment of time and energy. Such commitment would be given voluntarily, or with the expectation of little more than a dinner of potatoes, cabbage and bacon, and maybe a drop o' the hard stuff at the end of the day.

The obvious benefits of such an arrangement would be that the work got done in a fraction of the time that would otherwise be required, it often got done better because more skill and know-how would be available, the voluntary effort would be reciprocated when the next man's turn came around and, most importantly, it fostered a spirit of self-help and co-operation that forged strong community ties.

In Belturbet you got a strong sense of that spirit among all the people working at the railway restoration project and among the population generally. All were strongly motivated by the need to get Belturbet firmly on the tourist map, to create jobs and help the local economy. This was self-help and co-operation at a high a level but you also got a sense of something else that I haven't mentioned yet - it was great fun!

Over the years I've been privileged to witness some "meitheal-type" operations at first hand, - cutting turf at Drumskinny, burning lime at Drumquin, threshing old-style at Kilskeery, quilt-making at Churchill - and all of these activities were accompanied by hilarious banter and a great feeling of camaraderie.

You also got a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself and being part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years.

When I come to think about it, there's an element of the "meitheal" about filming Lesser Spotted Ulster. Everybody brings different skills to the task in hand, we work together for a common purpose and it's a hugely enjoyable co-operative effort.

All I need to do now is persuade Vinny, Billy, Orlagh, Kevin and Patrick to settle for a feed of cabbage and bacon at the end of the day.

And perhaps a drop o' the hard stuff.

© UTV News
Comments Comments
Will Lindsay in County Antrim wrote (811 days ago):
Hi Joe, As a man that is interested in local history also, I have been watching LSU for years and never miss an episode. Perhaps you might be interested in my local history endeavours, documenting the American presence in Ulster during the Second World War, I have been at this for around ten years now, there is always something new to learn. Kindest regards Will Lindsay
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Joe Mahon
Joe Mahon

Joe Mahon is the presenter of UTV's long-running series Lesser Spotted Ulster.

He is a man who has seen more of the nooks and crannies of the Ulster countryside than anyone else.

His travels for the show have seen him cross land and sea finding the hidden histories of the local landscape.

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